Personal Relationships with Great Works of Art | Director's Letter Summer 2019

Like millions around the globe I was transfixed and horrified by the images of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris in flames on Monday, April 15. In a city beloved the world over for its beauty and romance, Notre-Dame somehow endured as the symbol of that city—rivaled only by the Eiffel Tower—welcoming millions of visitors each year. Dating to a construction period that began in 1163 and concluded about 1240, and having survived the French Revolution and two world wars, it seemed tragically incomprehensible that such a monument could face destruction even as it underwent restoration. The sight of its spire, a product of restoration in the nineteenth century at the hands of the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, toppling as the fire consumed the great cathedral’s roof was heartbreaking.

By a seeming miracle, however, our worst fears were not realized, and the bulk of the cathedral was saved through the heroic efforts of French firefighters who appear to have made some very smart and fortunate decisions. That the great twelfth-century towers, ceiling trusses, flying buttresses, stained glass, and organ should have survived seemed a remarkable turn of events from the worst (and premature) reports on the day of the fire.

Like many, I have had a personal relationship with Notre-Dame de Paris. As a young man living and studying in Paris, I saw the towers almost every day as I made my way to and from classes at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre or to the galleries of the Louvre itself where I first learned object-based gallery teaching (in French!). When I was feeling flush, I sometimes indulged in an ice cream in the cathedral’s shadow on the Île Saint-Louis; when I was broke, I satisfied myself with the gardens behind the cathedral or the quais along the river, offering scenes worthy of the films of Gene Kelly or Audrey Hepburn. That it was in Paris that I determined to be an art historian—and specifically to pursue a museum-based career—made these relationships all the more resonantly meaningful. But on that April day, many provided evidence of their relationships with that great building, sharing snapshots or selfies from past visits. I claim no privilege in my relationship to such an icon.

It is that very fact—that many of us forge deeply personal relationships with great works of art, including great buildings—that brings me to meditate now on the meaning of Notre-Dame, its fire, and the aftermath. I often invoke the meaning of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe when I speak of the aspirational ambitions of modern-day art museums. But debates in the fire’s aftermath further reveal the complicated power of our icons. French president Emmanuel Macron sought to use the fire and the need to restore a national icon—a symbol of French cultural achievement—as a means to promote national unity and as a call to become “better than what we are.” The ease with which over $1 billion was raised for Notre-Dame’s reconstruction in the first few days after the fire—more than half of that amount from three well-known French billionaires—inflamed concerns in France about financial disparity. Yellow Vest activists challenged the public and the government to consider why such monies could not be so easily secured to address financial disparity and poverty. In this country, the ease with which money was raised for Notre-Dame led to a spike in fundraising for the rebuilding of historic black churches destroyed by arson, even if in less media-worthy numbers.

The aesthetic debate ahead is likely to be just as dramatic. While few seem to question the imperative of stabilization and then restoration, the French government’s announcement of a competition to rebuild the damaged cathedral has already fostered virulent debate. Pure restoration is not feasible: attaining comparable lumber to that of the 13,000 trees from primary forests used to construct the now-lost roof is not possible. But should the project aim at an exact replication of what was lost? At the recreation of something approaching the twelfth-century design prior to dramatic rebuilding in the nineteenth century? Or something that reflects today’s values?

In pondering these possibilities, we can fruitfully remind ourselves that the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, like all works of art, is an organic and living object, one that has already seen great change in its long lifetime. Viollet-le-Duc sought not to restore the cathedral to its original state, but in the words of Meaghan O’Neill in Architectural Digest, “to calm the chaotic complexities of Gothicism” to render it more suitable to the needs of the nineteenth century. Architecture poses its own particular challenges in its publicness and, as here, its age, but the questions posed find connections with how we think about the speculative restoration of ancient works of art, the removal of well-loved embellishments added to works of art to better suit later tastes, or the practice of changing works of art to make them more marketable, as was done to many of Édouard Manet’s paintings after his death. Whatever the solutions are to be in Paris, I hope we can make peace with the complicated nature of the past and resist inauthenticity, however tidy and appealing that might be.

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director